Buttigieg and Sanders separated by razor-thin margin with Iowa count nearly done

By Nolan D. McCaskill

Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders are running neck and neck in the Iowa caucuses with almost all of the votes counted.

Buttigieg has 26.23 percent of the state delegate count to 26.06 percent for Sanders with 97 percent of precincts reporting, making the race too close to call, according to The Associated Press.

Elizabeth Warren is in third at 18 percent of the state delegate count, followed by Joe Biden at nearly 16 percent and Amy Klobuchar at 12 percent.

After a technical meltdown created significant delays in the reporting of results in Monday’s caucuses, the Iowa Democratic Party released almost all of the remaining data Wednesday night. The latest results came as CNN wrapped up a series of town halls with candidates in New Hampshire.

Earlier results came Wednesday afternoon as Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar were in the Senate voting in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. The Republican-led chamber ultimately voted to acquit Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress as the numbers from Iowa were released.

The latest results don’t change the order of the top five candidates, but they do show a razor-thin race at the top, where both the Buttigieg and Sanders campaigns have already declared themselves winners.

Buttigieg insisted as early as Monday night that he was the clear victor, and he reportedly reassured supporters of that in a phone call on Wednesday. Sanders, meanwhile, told supporters in New Hampshire that he was leading in popular-vote totals and would come out of Iowa with the same number of national convention delegates as Buttigieg.

In terms of raw votes, Sanders leads in by more than 2,500 votes in the final alignment of Iowa caucus-goers, after supporters of non-viable candidates had the chance to realign at their precincts on Monday night.

In a memo, Sanders’ Iowa state director, Misty Rebik, wrote that although the campaign didn’t get its victory party in Iowa, “we are unstoppable.”

“While the delay to receive the official results from the Iowa Democratic Party is deeply frustrating (trust me, I know), as of now Bernie Sanders is winning the popular vote in Iowa and is tied in projected national pledged delegates,” she wrote. “We are on the path to victory.”

For the first time, Iowa Democrats are releasing data on the raw vote counts, including the first alignment and the realignment, as well as the state delegate equivalents, which translate into the delegates to the Democratic National Convention. The latter metric is what most news organizations are using to determine the winners.

After doing a series of national television interviews on Tuesday morning, Buttigieg was relatively quiet on Wednesday. He held a youth climate and clean-energy town hall in Concord, N.H., on Wednesday morning but left the state for fundraising events in New Jersey and New York before participating in a call with supporters and his senior advisers.

Biden, however, had plenty to say, warning voters in New Hampshire ahead of next Tuesday’s primary not to risk nominating Sanders — who has a significant advantage over his nearest rivals in an average of recent polls in the state, where he won the 2016 primary with 60 percent of the vote — or Buttigieg, who alongside Warren trails Biden for second place there.

“If Sen. Sanders is the nominee for the party, every Democrat in America up and down the ballot, in blue states, red states, purple states, easy districts and competitive ones, every Democrat will have to carry the label Sen. Sanders has chosen for himself,” Biden said. “He calls him — and I don’t criticize him — he calls himself a democratic socialist.”

Of Buttigieg, Biden questioned whether the former mayor had the audacity to call “the Obama-Biden administration a failure.”

“Pete, just say it out loud,” Biden said. “I have great respect for Mayor Pete and his service to this nation. But I do believe it’s a risk — to be just straight up with you — for this party to nominate somebody who’s never held an office higher than mayor of a town of 100,000 people in Indiana. I do believe it’s a risk.”

Buttigieg told MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle that he has “enormous regard for those achievements.”

“If you look at what President Obama was able to do with two terms, it was extraordinary,” he said. “But I think the bulk of the credit for the achievements of the Obama administration belong with President Obama.”

Adam Jentleson, a Democratic strategist who is close to Warren’s campaign, tweeted that “Iowans sealed their future irrelevance by supporting the candidate who is least able to turn out the Obama coalition.”

“Only a state that is 90% white could fall for Pete’s empty claims to Obama’s achievements and legacy,” he added. “Bye, Iowa.”

Asked about the sparring among top contenders — which came just ahead of the CNN town halls and Friday’s debate in Manchester, N.H. — Warren herself made a call for unity.

“I think that the most important thing we need to do is beat Donald Trump, and the critical step in doing that is pulling this party together,” she told reporters in Nashua, N.H. “We beat Donald Trump not by fighting other Democrats. We beat Donald Trump by pulling this party together.”

Despite her rhetoric, Warren’s campaign manager, Roger Lau, publicly called out Buttigieg strategist Michael Halle for seemingly trying to communicate with a super PAC supporting the ex-mayor’s campaign.

Halle had tweeted that Buttigieg’s “military experience and closing message from Iowa work everywhere especially in Nevada where it’s critical they see this on the air through the caucus.”

“Was this meant to be a DM or did you mean to tweet out this instruction to your super PAC?” Lau asked. “(Fun fact about how some campaigns exploit our broken campaign finance laws: if it was a DM it would be illegal.)”

Buttigieg's campaign did not deny that the tweet was hint to his backers.

“Pete is the only candidate who isn‘t a millionaire or billionaire. And if the largest progressive veterans group wants to help spread the word about his service, we welcome it,“ Chris Meagher, a Buttigieg spokesman, said in a statement shared with POLITICO. “Veterans have been central to propelling our movement and they will be a central part of the coalition that Pete will bring together to defeat Donald Trump.“

While Buttigieg’s declaration of victory is on path to prove true, his rivals’ early assertions appear much less prophetic. Warren had indicated on Tuesday that the results would show a tight three-person race. Yet results thus far show a two-person race for first place, with Warren a distant third.

Biden maintained on Tuesday that he did well in Iowa, but the former vice president is sitting in fourth place, behind a moderate alternative in Buttigieg and two liberal lawmakers in Sanders and Warren. At an event in Somersworth, N.H., Biden conceded that he “took a gut punch in Iowa.” And POLITICO reported later Wednesday that the campaign had parted ways with its Iowa field director.

Symone Sanders, Biden’s senior adviser, said that Monday night wasn’t the first time Biden had been knocked down.

“For anyone who is wondering, he’s not going anywhere,” she told CNN’s Brianna Keilar in a confrontational interview. “He’s going to fight. He’s used to fighting for what he wants, fighting for what he believes in, and this nomination is no different.”

She also echoed Biden’s criticism of nominating a self-described democratic socialist in Sanders, whom she worked for in 2016.

“That is a moniker he himself has embraced, but that is not a moniker that folks across this country when it comes to down-ballot candidates will be able to embrace and be successful,” she said. “This is about keeping the House, this is about gaining seats in the Senate and this is about beating Donald Trump. And you can’t beat Donald Trump with double-talk on health care, and we can’t beat Donald Trump with socialism across this country. It’s just not gonna work.”

Justin Buoen, Klobuchar’s campaign manager, had said early Tuesday that the Minnesota senator was “running even or ahead of” Biden. But Klobuchar trails Biden by nearly 4 percentage points, leaving her in fifth place.

Scott Bland, Holly Otterbein, Marc Caputo and Stephanie Murray contributed to this report.